Actéon: Charpentier, Dido and Aeneas: Purcell
Les Arts Florissants at Brooklyn Academy of Music
18th March, 2010
Opening night of the inaugural BAM Opera Festival offered tenderly sensual thrills in two one-act gems of the Baroque: Charpentier’s haunting Actéon and Purcell’s beloved Dido and Aeneas. Conductor William Christie and his masterful early music ensemble Les Arts Florissants partnered exquisitely with stage and singer, utterly convincing me that Baroque is Beautiful. The period instruments evoked such haunting and unusual colours that I was often completely swept away in lapping waves of sound, so many of my impressions of the evening are pleasurably fleeting.
Vincent Boussard’s production, lit magically by Gloria Montesinos and decorated lushly by Chantal de la Coste Messelière’s costumes, enchanted with its simplicity and adaptability. A single fifteen-foot, six-paneled mirror graced the middle of the bare stage for Actéon; the same served for Dido,with the sole addition of a towering pink georgette rose hovering above (its significance a tantalizing mystery until the final chorus: “With drooping wings you Cupids come, To scatter roses on her tomb”). Every element of the production was inextricable from the drama, from the suggestive shadow plays of the nymphs’ bath on the rear walls of the stage, to the unlacing of the delicate bark and flora breastplates of the nymphs, leaving them in gauzy nude slips more evocative than overtly sexual, making Actéon’s innocent viewing the more tragic in its fatality.
Baroque storytelling does not always offer opportunity for deep character development. Instead, the drama captivates with atmospheric commentary from the protean chorus and illustrative instrumental colors, and as on this evening, the individual intensity and personality of each performer, singer and instrumentalist alike. The passé conception of ‘authentic’ Baroque music as neutral and inexpressive was vehemently dismissed this evening. While the vocal production still tends toward a straighter sound with occasional thinness of timbre, particularly on the part of some of the women, in general the variety of tone and colour and expressive touches surprised and delighted me. Ensemble and vocalists alike did not shy away from humourous and dramatic turns, all to enjoyable effect.
The singers of the choir of Les Arts Florissants were no less decorative than their costumes, and entranced me from their first entrance, scattered through the audience, frolicking and singing in beautiful tune and togetherness. Each member shone both dramatically and vocally; as the ensembles of these two operas are important characters in themselves, they drove the plots onward with fascinating commitment.
British tenor Ed Lyon as Actéon was affecting, with his open face, attractive light voice, and graceful movement. He particularly took my breath away during a cameo moment in Dido, physically echoing Actéon’s transformation into a stag from the previous opera, as Second Woman (Katherine Watson) sang his story, echoing her own role as Diane. The other star of the evening for me was the shimmering soprano of Emmanuelle de Negri, warmer and deeper than her female colleagues, as a thoughtful Aréthuze and earnest, sunny Belinda in each respective opera.
Contralto Hilary Summers, taking on the two roles of Junon (Actéon) and the Sorceress (Dido), initially flummoxed me. Visually more extravagant than her colleagues, adorned in clouds of black and silver organza with panniers dripping beads, tall and sexually ambiguous, her darkly covered sound is reminiscent of a countertenor. But when are any of us accustomed to a contralto? Her histrionic Junon originally seemed out of place in the gossamer Actéon, but her delightfully destructive Sorceress unified the two operas, accompanied by her two henchmen, played to the impish and raucous hilt by Céline Ricci and Ana Quintans, who also offered beauty and luxuriant phrasing in their Actéon duet. Summers’ pair of roles was a lynchpin to the double-bill, embodying the mythic nature of the stories with her voice and otherworldly presence, and complementing her very mortal counterparts.
Katherine Watson made a good impression as Second Woman, but seemed somehow too immature for the goddess Diane. She and de Negri might both have benefited from switching roles in Actéon; still, she too was pleasing and lovely. Damian Whitely’s Sailor was appropriately full of gusto, with a nice baritonal heft.
As Aeneas, Andreas Wolf displayed a rich bass-baritone and phrased musically, but he lacked a little of the god-like bearing that Belinda claims for him. His Dido, Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, possesses an angelic face and sparkling, free voice at the top of her range, but her singing was variably uneven and her characterization a little limited and petulant for the famously independent and reflective Carthaginian queen. Still, she was integrally part of a brilliant whole, and her lament had a simplicity that, combined with the plaintive period instruments, haunted. The mournful final chorus of “With drooping wings” still echoes in my mind today.
The two operas are thematically linked by their tragic mortal ends resulting from supernatural interference, as well as a direct reference to Actéon’s story within Dido. As tragic as each story is, the playful, committed treatment of music, voices and drama had me leave the theater wistful but uplifted. It was a magical evening, and I can only imagine that Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, the elaborate centerpiece of BAM’s Baroque opera festival, will be even more delectable.
Bottom line: Double your bill, double your fun.
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Les Arts Florissants
Conductor: William Christie
Director: Vincent Boussard
Costume Designer: Chantal de la Coste Messelière
Lighting Designer: Gloria Montesinos
English titles: Chris Bergen
Actéon – Ed Lyon
Diane – Katherine Watson
Aréthuze – Emmanuelle de Negri
Hyale – Céline Ricci
Daphné – Ana Quintans
Junon – Hilary Summers
Dido and Aeneas
Dido – Sonya Yoncheva
Aeneas – Andreas Wolf
Sorceress – Hilary Summers
Belinda – Emmanuelle de Negri
First Witch – Céline Ricci
Second Witch – Ana Quintans
Second Woman – Katherine Watson
Spirit – Ed Lyon
Sailor – Damian Whiteley
Ensemble: Les Arts Florissants choir